Living the brand

When the Ferretti Group acquired Bertram Yachts in 1998, it had a challenge on its hands. The sportfishing boat brand is what Bertram Yacht CEO Giovanni Vacchi calls a “legend” in the marine industry, but in the early 90s, it fell from its former heights under new ownership.
“It was not properly managed at the level which its name, its tradition deserves,” Vacchi says. Ferretti Group’s task was to restore the brand to its former glory while taking advantage of the Italian boat building firm’s strengths.
“Since we purchased Bertram, we’ve been very careful to maintain an American legacy and American management,” Vacchi explains. “Yes, I’m the CEO and I’m Italian, but I’ve been educated in the U.S. and I have several years of experience in this country. I like to think that I understand the people, the market, the characteristics of how people live, the boater and what they enjoy and don’t enjoy in a boat and in the pleasures of life.”
In developing a strategy for Bertram Yachts, Ferretti looked at what customers appreciated about their boats. In fact, a few years ago, the company brought on a new director of marketing tasked with conducting customer research to better understand the brand’s perception in the marketplace.
The result was the establishment of four brand pillars: ride and performance; innovative design; technology and quality; and one-to-one customer service.
By themselves, these pillars could apply to almost any boat brand. What sets Bertram apart is how the company lives them day-to-day and uses them to drive change and improvement across its operation.
“The bricks building these pillars are products, people and the partnerships with our dealers and our partners,” says Vacchi.
Here are four examples of how Bertram is bringing its business philosophies to life:
Lifting up its people
In a business as labor-intensive and as prone to labor shortages the boat building industry, an investment in a company’s production team is likely to generate returns, especially when building custom products.
Bertram has proven its leadership in this area through its recent investment in the Bertram School of Boat Building, a program put in place at its Miami-based plant in which its most experienced boat builders train both newly hired and current employees.
“Like most CEOs, I say people are the most important part of the company,” says Vacchi. “But I really believe it. I believe the workers, the finishers, the laminators — those are the guys in whom it’s worth investing.”
When first launched, the school focused on carpentry education, offering courses that sought to train individuals on three levels of carpentry, and supervisors on management skills. To develop the curriculum, Bertram studied every stage of its boat production, developing step-by-step instructions for each carpentry-related process. In just over a year, several employees have successfully completed the initial program, and what started out as exploratory is now being expanded to cover training in all of the plant’s processes.
Another example of Bertram’s commitment to its employees is its policy to hire from within, according to Vacchi.
“Whenever we have to find a person for a specific role, our mantra is first to look inside,” he says. “I believe it is very de-motivating for employees to see people coming from outside without being given the opportunity to propose themselves for a specific role. This happened in the past, but this is not happening under my guidance.”
Defining the ride
The legend of Bertram Yachts was established, in part, by the ride offered by its boats, created by the deep-V hull designed by Raymond Hunt, according to Vacchi.
By retaining this hull design through the new boat models it has offered, Ferretti is preserving the ride, tracking and stability of the boat, something it considers a key product characteristic.
“Not only does it offer a more pleasant experience, but it also guarantees a much higher level of safety and security in navigation,” comments Vacchi.
With that said, the company took a step toward further influencing its customers’ onboard experience last fall by reaching an exclusive agreement with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. that was established by Ferretti Group. Through the agreement, Bertram became the first sportfishing boat builder to offer Anti-Rolling Gyro technology, according to Vacchi. The system employs a gyrostabilizer, which resists rolling motions in an effort to keep the boat upright.
This is emblematic of Ferretti Group’s efforts to bridge the gap between providing a highly functional sportfishing vessel and a luxurious yacht.
“The technological possibilities that exist today must be used to provide sportfishing and yachting customers with the best they can have in a product that at the same time gives you a great experience if you want to go out fishing with your friends, and a luxurious and comfortable boat if you want to go out with your family,” explains Vacchi. “When you invest so much in a boat, you have to have the best of both worlds.”
But Bertram would never have been able to secure the exclusive partnership without its parent company, Ferretti Group. Not only has Bertram benefited from what Vacchi calls “the engineering and design genius of Norberto Ferretti” and naval architecture firms like Zuccon Design, it also has access to Ferretti Group’s research center, Advanced Yacht Technology.
The center’s design team consists of about 90 engineers and designers who carry out continuous research on innovative product and process solutions, Vacchi explained.
“Being part of the group makes it possible for each and every brand to benefit from a unique team of designers, naval engineers, architects and technicians …” he says. “AYT has successfully contributed to increasing the prestige of all the group brands, in terms of quality and innovation.”
While AYT is primarily focused on project development, research and development, and study and improvements of structural design, it’s also responsible for building co-design partnerships with suppliers, often an essential step to advancements in technologies. One such example is Ferretti Group’s exclusive partnership with Mitsubishi to provide the ARG technology.
“We’ve been very carefully maintaining — while innovating the design of — the traditional look and feel of the old Bertrams to bring some of the creative genius of Norberto Ferretti while maintaining an American heritage in our products,” Vacchi comments. “We believe in our capability of putting together the competences of Ferretti Group with the heritage, the history and basically the tradition of Bertram Yachts.”
Making it personal
In today’s global economy, consumers rarely enjoy personal contact with the manufacturer of a product they’ve purchased, with the exception of its customer service department. Bertram Yachts understands that this type of interaction provides a special and unique experience — one its customers are particularly interested in.
“Bertram customers are mostly entrepreneurs and have built their businesses from the ground up,” explains Brett Keating, Bertram’s director of marketing. “They like to be involved and are hands on. Their Bertram is the trophy of their success in life. Unlike other sport fishing owners, instead of just hiring a captain and crew to do everything for them, Bertram owners take an active part in running, fishing and maintaining their boat.”
Bertram therefore embraces opportunities to form relationships with their customers. New boat buyers receive a letter from Vacchi, which includes his phone number and an invitation to call him at any time for any reason.
“I am very involved in the operating aspects of the company, even though we have a very good structure with lots of professionals,” he says. “The customers can call me and then I clearly make sure the entire organization is working around solving the customer’s questions and needs.”
Bertram also works hard to understand the needs of its customers and then incorporate them into its boat design. In fact, the company has begun conducting face-to-face interviews, not only with the owners, but with their spouses too.
“The feedback we get is much better than a typical focus group in some research facility because we hold these meetings on their boats,” explains Keating. “This provides an interactive way to see what the boat owners are talking about and to show us their improvements or hassles. Many times, we videotape these sessions so we can bring the feedback back to the design team so they can see exactly what the boat owner is talking about.”
As a result of that feedback, Bertram established an owners’ club last year. The most important service it offers, Keating explains, is a hotline through which owners can locate a preferred local service shop when they’re at a tournament or on vacation. The hotline can also be used to help owners with other travel arrangements.
The primary goal of collecting that feedback, however, is to improve current products and drive new product development. Bertram’s voice-of-the-customer initiative is part of the Design Review process, which crosses all Ferretti Group brands.
“We take [customers’] requirements back to our engineering and design team and, from there, the magic begins to solve these important issues with the technology and innovative capabilities of our team,” explains Vacchi. “This process also facilitates the new product launch process because we built the boat the way our customers wanted it. We know what is important to them, and we make sure that the marketing materials tell the story. The customers that were involved in the process feel a tighter connection with the factory and hopefully will be repeat customers in the future as a direct result.”
Quality, not quantity
Bertram Yachts builds fewer boats than some of its competitors, but that’s just fine with its CEO. Vacchi says he wants Bertram to be one of the leaders in the industry because of the quality of its product, not the quantity.
One way he has worked to ensure that quality is through a boat survey and acceptance process he brought to the company. Bertram now has a team of experienced employees, split between the United States and Europe, who inspect, survey and eventually accept each boat Bertram produces well before it reaches the dealer or the customer. Team members report directly to Vacchi.
“These are done by professionals,” he comments. “We really want to make sure the best products come out of our plant.”
In addition, two years ago, Bertram implemented a system of quality indicators on the production line. The goal? To not only keep people accountable but give them specific targets to be achieved and to reward them for productivity.
“We are not a volume manufacturer,” he says. “When you make bigger boats, it’s always good to try to bring a more quantitative approach to the art of boat building.”
How well the product performs once it’s released into the marketplace is then tracked by Bertram’s customer service department and presented to its Bertram Performance Excellence Committee, established about 18 months ago. The committee brings top management together to ensure the company is moving as quickly as possible to take advantage of opportunities for improvement.
“My goal is to build on our strengths and make sure that Bertram continues on its way to being one of the leaders in the sportfishing and luxury yacht market in the U.S.,” he concludes. “Our goal is not to lead in market share – we don’t want to be a volume manufacturer. In my opinion, leading is producing some of the best products, providing the Bertram customers a fulfillment of their dreams.” -by Lisa Young

Riding the wave
Despite market conditions, Bertram Yachts is optimistic about the future.
Like most boat builders, Bertram Yachts is feeling the impact of the slowdown in the U.S. market.
While it has a strong presence internationally through its global dealer network, which has helped offset the decline in sales, the U.S. boat market is the biggest in the world and especially important for manufacturers of sportfishing boats, says Giovanni Vacchi, Bertram Yachts CEO.
“The U.S. market is so big that sometimes, if you’re focused on it and times are good, you forget about the foreign markets,” he explains. “I believe a healthy strategy is to develop a global dealer network to be able to spread sales internationally as well as domestically. Then, when [the U.S. market is] slow, you’re not starting from scratch.”
Economic cycles impact consumers of different boat sizes and international markets differently. The market for boats below 50 feet in length is tough right now, while people in the market for a boat 80 or 90 feet in length aren’t affected by a slowdown in the economy, Vacchi says. In the 55 to 85-foot boat market, it varies geographically.
“International markets are not affected because there is less use of leverage by people buying boats, and there is less reaction to the rumors about the economy, says Vacchi. “Somebody who has solid net worth who wants to change the boat, will change the boat, independent from rumors about the recession, changes in presidency and so on. In the U.S., it’s slightly magnified. When cycles are improving, it’s magnified even more. Then, you have a lot of people buying boats. The use of leverage magnifies it.”
Despite the current down cycle, Vacchi believes that the fundamentals of the boating industry and of the U.S. market are solid. It’s just a question of time.
“If I look specifically at our niche, people who can afford our boats will eventually change their boats because they have the money,” he says. “People with disposable income are not very impacted by subprime and interest rates. It’s more of a psychological barrier that eventually will be overcome.” — by Liz Walz

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